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This ‘Simple’ Question About Psychiatric Medication Is So Damaging

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Editor's Note

Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

“Are you off your meds?”

If you take psychiatric medication, this question may seem just as insidious as the symptoms your meds are meant to combat. On the surface, it may seem like an innocent inquiry, but if you’ve heard it thrown around frequently since you started taking psychiatric meds, you may know just how damaging this simple phrase is.

The stigma surrounding mental illness runs deep, and the questions people on psychiatric medication receive about whether or not they’re consistent with their meds is a microcosm of the perceptions people without mental illness have of those who do. Oftentimes, people aren’t asked about the status of their medication when they seem even-keeled; they receive these questions when they express anger, frustration or irritability. And frequently, the people who ask whether or not people with mental illness are properly taking their meds don’t ask if there are any underlying factors causing those strong emotions; they just assume that the signs of someone’s mental illness are showing because that person has “gone off their meds.” After all, people with mental illness are often portrayed as impulsive, angry and destructive, so if someone with a mental illness seems on-edge, they must be off their meds, right?

No. Not even close.

It may be easy to assume that mental illness bleeds into every “negative” emotion a mentally ill person experiences, but chalking those emotions up to them being “off their meds” can prevent them from healthily expressing a full range of emotions. People who don’t take psychiatric medication often have freedom to express anger, frustration, anxiety and sadness in ways those who do can’t — all thanks to society’s perception of mental illness. It’s as if, in someone with a mental illness, natural emotions are frightening and uncontrollable.

Furthermore, asking someone with mental illness if they’re taking their meds when they express anger or sadness is an invasion of privacy. As with any other type of medication or treatment regimen, whether any given person is using their medication correctly is no one else’s business. Medical information — including medication history — is a sensitive subject, and no one should feel forced to disclose details that may make them uncomfortable, especially to non-professionals. It may be easy to assume that asking someone about whether or not they’re still on their medication could reduce the stigma surrounding mental health meds, but asking for private information could shut those conversations down instead of opening them up.

If you believe that someone isn’t taking their medication without their psychiatrist’s consent, it’s OK to ask them what’s going on, but it’s unacceptable to jump down mentally ill people’s throats about their medication habits every time they seem less than happy about something. Chances are, your loved one is having a hard day or is coping with some difficult emotions, so instead of asking if they’re “off their meds,” ask if there’s anything you can do to help — and follow through if you can. Ask yourself how you’d want others to treat you when you’re struggling — would you want your emotions constantly attributed to the (perceived) lack of medication in your system, or would you want people to recognize your feelings as strong but natural?

Although it may seem helpful to ask your loved ones if they’re “off their meds” whenever they’re unhappy or frustrated about something, remember that even on psychiatric medication, people with mental illness display a wide range of emotions — all of which are valid. Before you ask someone if they’re “off their meds,” put yourself in their position and think about the ways that question perpetuates the mental health stigma. People on psychiatric medication can have hard days, and when they do, they need love and support, not an interrogation.

Photo by Мария Волк on Unsplash

Originally published: August 20, 2021
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